By BRYAN BALLAS, JUICY ECUMENISM—
The United Church of Christ (UCC) is considering two resolutions concerning Israel at the denomination’s upcoming June 26-30 General Synod in Cleveland, Ohio. The first calls for the UCC to boycott Israeli products from Palestinian lands and divest from the corporations who receive profit from the “occupation” of said lands. The latter resolution calls on the UCC to label Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians as “apartheid.” On May 8, 2015 a panel of experts was asked to provide context to the discussion for the benefit of the UCC Synod delegates and the people involved with the issues in question.
Reverend Dr. Susan B. Thistlethwaite of Chicago Theological Seminary supported the first resolution’s call to study the Kairos Palestine document, ‘A Moment of Truth’: A 15 Word of Faith, Hope, and Love from the Heart of Palestinian Suffering. Thistlethwaite warned, however, that sanctions can bring great ills if they are overly broad. She also stressed the need for campus ministries to have interfaith dialogue and proudly noted that her own school was broadening its “religious diversity.” Finally, she emphasized that the “occupation” is a “Christian” issue,
“Christians are funding these settlements…and we fail our obligations as Christians if we do not try to talk to them about that…as Christians we are not innocent people in relationship to the Middle East….I think we’ve also got to own our own stuff.”
Dr. Reza Aslan of the University of California, Riverside described the Palestine situation as a continuity of “brutal military occupation and subjugation of a people…for their ethnic or religious differences” and charged that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s administration “has…more in common with the neo-fascist parties of Europe than it does to any government or movement in Israel’s history.” A self-described “unapologetically one-stater,” he suggested that there be a single state in which Palestine gives up right of return and Israel surrenders the idea of a majority Jewish state. Despite his hostility towards the Israeli government, he did not support the sanction resolution, as blanket sanctions have poor success rates and bar cultural and academic outreach.
Rev. John Buchanan, former Pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church (Chicago) and editor of Christian Century conceives the church as an advocate for “neighborly love,” which is manifested in social justice and equality. That said, he was against boycotts, divestment, and sanctions (BDS). He questioned the effectiveness of divesting, as it affronts most American Jews, who perceive boycotts as attacks on Israel proper, and view BDS as proof of outside animosity. He was alarmed that Israel was being put under a microscope, while Hamas, whose charter calls for the elimination of the Jews received a pass. He brought to mind that the Presbyterians tried divestment, only for the Jewish community to interpret it as an attack. Invoking Isaiah 58:10-12, he said that the UCC should be a “repairer of the breach” by supporting a two state solution and producing a better alternative than divestment.
Philip Farah, co-founder of the Washington Interfaith Alliance for Middle East, charged Israel with ghettoizing Palestinians in their own land, torturing children, and destroying homes. He claimed that the American companies use Palestinians as “guinea pigs” for weapons testing, charged that the U.S. Government gives Israel more money per capita than it did to its own poorest citizens, and maintained that the U.S. shields Israel from critical feedback from the United Nations (UN). He reminded everyone that the Nazi oppression of the Jews did not stop their oppression of the Palestinians any more than the European oppression of the Calvinists and the Mennonites stopped them from oppressing the Native Americans. He supported both resolutions, framing them as a chance for the UCC to “to give hope to the only people in Palestine who are doing non-violent struggle.”
Illinois Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky touted her liberal credentials, noting that she is a Vice Chair of the Progressive Caucus, one of founding members of the Out of Iraq Congress, and a vocal critic of the Jewish occupation of Palestinian lands. However, she did not support the resolutions, as they will empower hardliners in both camps and demoralize Israeli Jews who support a two state solution. She also claimed that some within the BDS movement don’t accept Israel’s right to exist. She proposes “tools of reconciliation programs” such as economic and anti-illiteracy initiatives in place of BDS resolutions.
Peter Beinart, Contributing Editor for The Atlantic and Senior Columnist at Haaretz.com said Israeli policies do not meet the criteria of apartheid, as there is a Palestinian on the Supreme Court and that Palestinians are able to go into the Knesset and label Israeli policies as “apartheid.” He charged the BDS movement with displaying “a kind of leftism that Reinhold Niebuhr tended to critique……does not recognize certain tragic realities in the world……the enduring power of nationalism.” He further noted that Israel is “held to a double standard by the global left…but double standards are inevitable.” Despite this inevitability, Beinart insisted that Zionism be given equal consideration to Palestinian Nationalism. Subsequently, no one should be any more offended by Israel having Sabbath laws than they should about the Palestinians choosing Islam as the religion of their territory. However, he held Israel responsible for the BDS Movement by maintaining the status quo and not implementing a two state solution.
The cession ended with concluding remarks made by non-panel members Dr. Rami Nashashibi and Dr. Rachel Mickva.
Nashashibi acknowledged that the sanctions and divestment resolution is a strategic matter, but claimed that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians in the occupied territories is a prime example of apartheid. He further reminded the audience that the term “apartheid” has been used by American authors to jumpstart our nation’s conscience into action.
Mickva called the Middle East Conflict a clash between peace seeking Jews and Palestinians and their respective counterparts who want to obstruct peace. She supported the divestment and boycotts resolution, but not the apartheid label. Mickva asserted that this conflict requires honest self-assessment and the realization that people who disagree with them are approaching the issue from a moral viewpoint.
Notwithstanding over-the-top rhetoric of some panelists, this presentation was relatively promising. Despite its Islamic, Palestinian, and religious leftist make up, the advisory panel was mostly reluctant to engage Israel with BDS tactics and the apartheid accusation. How this will affect the Church’s decision on the resolutions remains to be seen.